Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2002 / 19 Shevat, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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The alert State of the Union -- IT might not be evident from the display of unity that greeted the president's State of the Union address, but the Bush presidency is now entering its most vulnerable stage -- whatever the fickle polls report for the moment -- for nothing disorganizes an administration, not even defeat, like apparent victory. That is when a republic may be tempted to relax its efforts, turn its back on the enemy and sink into familiar lethargy. And into familiar quarrels.

So long as this president spoke of the war against terror Tuesday night -- and half of his speech must have been devoted to it -- he was focused, frank and all the more inspiring for being realistic. His words elevated even as they sobered. He let us see where we have been, where we are now and how very far we still have to go:

"As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our union has never been stronger.''

True on all conflicting counts.

One rolling period followed another as this president and commander-in-chief took us from where we were only a short time ago to the challenges still facing not just our country but our civilization:

"We last met in an hour of shock and suffering. In four short months, our nation has comforted the victims; begun to rebuild New York and the Pentagon; rallied a great coalition; captured, arrested and rid the world of thousands of terrorists; destroyed Afghanistan's terrorist training camps. ... Terrorists who once occupied Afghanistan now occupy cells at Guantanamo Bay. And terrorist leaders who urged followers to sacrifice their lives are running for their own. ...

"The men and women of our armed forces have delivered a message now clear to every enemy of the United States: Even 7,000 miles, across oceans and continents, on mountaintops and in caves, you will not escape the justice of this nation. ...

"What we have found in Afghanistan confirms that, far from ending there, our war against terror is only beginning. ... Our nation will continue to be steadfast, and patient, and persistent.

"I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons. Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun.''

Surely other presidents have been more eloquent, but can you think of one who has become so eloquent in so short a time? War must wonderfully concentrate the mind. To the surprise of some, George W. Bush has shown a sharp learning curve.

Though it isn't noted as often, what this president seems to have learned most is the power of the will, of the spirit, and of the moral unity of this one nation indivisible -- and the power of a leader who can express it. When he spoke of this war against terror, his words were cogent, concise, compelling. Like the state of the union itself, they were all of a piece.

What was the most impressive part of his speech? There were so many to choose from. For one thing, he named names. He didn't speak in generalities about the terrorist danger. He named names: "Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad ... .'' He reeled them off like Wanted posters. The candidate who couldn't identify the leader of Pakistan during the campaign now praises its president for his cooperation. More impressive, he has made an ally of this former sponsor of the Taliban.

Nor did this president mince words about the "axis of evil'' that now threatens the world. He pinpointed it:

"Some of these regimes have been pretty quiet since September 11th. But we know their true nature. North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror.''

George W. Bush is making a little list: North Korea, Iran, Iraq ... . Their time will come. Maybe not today or the next day, but soon enough if they continue to threaten the peace of the world. They've now been warned. How refreshing to hear a president speak of evil without asking us to appease or negotiate with or psychoanalyze it -- but just deal with it. Before it strikes again.

Impressive, too, was the way the president reached out to the Islamic world, stressing that our war is not against a culture, but against those who have perverted it for their own nefarious purposes. Wisely, the president reached back to the old, the very old, greatness of Islamic civilization, which once beckoned like a light when Europe was still dark.

He spoke of "Islam's own rich history, with its centuries of learning and tolerance and progress.'' And chivalry and hospitality. The true heirs of Saladin, he was saying, would never stoop to terror, or let themselves become apologists for it.

Now, after a dramatic and heartening success in Afghanistan, comes the hard part: the long twilight struggle that will go on long after this president's watch is over. The same quality that saw us through the early, uncertain weeks of the war in Afghanistan, when every amateur analyst and teevee pundit had a better plan than the president's, will be needed even more now. It is not a quality associated with the American temper: patience.

Long after the applause has faded and the poll numbers have shifted, the American effort will need to be persistent -- never hurrying, never stopping. Not since Ronald Reagan has a president proposed as great an increase in the military budget, and not since Ronald Reagan has one been so overdue, or so merited.

This president has a domestic agenda, too, and the only part of his 48-minute speech that dragged was when he ticked it off. Suddenly we were back to normalcy with a thud, as the president used some of the same appealing phrases as the opposition (Patients' Bill of Rights! A Quality Teacher in Every Classroom!) but without meaning quite the same thing.

Let the games begin! You could sense the rival interests lining up in the arena like white-collar gladiators. We were back to politics-as-usual, with senators and representatives jumping up and down on cue like competing jacks-in-the-box at each loaded phrase.

Whatever team, party, industry, class or favorite economic theory you're tempted to root for in this contest, the same test should be applied to any policy being proposed. And what is that? It is Henry Hazlitt's principle. "The art of economics,'' he wrote in his primer on the subject, "consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.''

That's a good rule whether the topic is a farm bill, a tax cut, an energy policy, protection for an industry like steel or the question of whether people ought to be allowed to invest at least some of their own Social Security savings. But we live in such a super-heated political atmosphere that even an undeniable platitude like Henry Hazlitt's comes like a radical revelation.

Whatever one thinks of the president's now familiar economic program, or his new Freedom Corps of volunteers, this much should be clear: The attack on this country Sept. 11 was aimed not just at national monuments but the national economy. And its recovery will require the same unity, patience and perseverance as this war has brought forth.

To quote George W. Bush one more time, "We must act ... not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans.'' Let's roll.

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